Is Your Smart Device Spying on You?

Learn how to curtail the data-gathering

Man peeking carefully into microwave oven because he fears his smart devices are spying on him

 Willowpix / Getty Images

In this ever-connected world where everything from our speakers to our appliances is "smart" and "connected," it's easy to be paranoid about our privacy. Are the networked smart devices in our home spying on us? Should we be concerned? The short answers are sort of, and maybe.

Connected devices such as Amazon's Echo and the Fitbit fitness tracker have even been used as criminal witnesses, with police using their cutting-edge technology to gather evidence.

The Price We Pay for Personalization

Smart devices, such as smart speakers and smart assistants, are connected to the internet and serve up personalized services to make our lives easier. But these personalized services require data-gathering. Google, for example, knows quite a bit about you, from the websites you've visited and apps you've used to where you've traveled and whatever it is you said after "OK Google" when using Google Now or Google Assistant.

To inform you of traffic conditions on your commute home, Google Maps, Waze, or Apple Maps must know where you live as well as the average driving time for other users along the same route. To recommend a movie you'd enjoy, Netflix has to know what you've watched in the past. Your Nest thermostat has to know your temperature preferences as well as your schedule in order to save money on your heating bill. Any apps or websites that rely on advertising revenue must know what you're interested in to serve you ads on products you're likely to buy.

While this data transparency is the price we pay for personalization, there is big potential for abuse when all this personal data is stored in the cloud. Hackers and other nefarious actors could wreak havoc with our data.

The good news is there are ways to control some of the data being gathered about us, particularly when it comes to smart home virtual assistants such as Amazon Echo, smart TVs and game consoles, and even our own computer's microphone and camera.

Take Control of Alexa

Amazon Echo, aka Alexa, listens for the word "Alexa" by default, which activates the assistant. After being activated, the device records what you say, for example, "Alexa, tell me a joke."

If you're uneasy with the idea of Alexa recording your life, there are ways to gain more privacy.

Find, Manage and Delete Alexa Recordings

Use the Alexa Privacy settings page to access and manage data from your interactions with Alexa, including deleting recordings and smart device history.

To delete recordings;

  1. Access the Alexa Privacy settings page.

  2. Select Review Voice History.

  3. Select one of the options under Date Range.

  4. Mark the recorded interactions you want to delete, and then select Delete Selected Recordings.

If you're concerned about recordings that Google Assistant may have of your voice commands and conversation, delete those recordings with a few simple steps.

Manage Alexa's Smart Home Device History

Alexa interacts with third-party smart home devices, such as smart thermostats, and gathers data. To delete the third-party history data:

  1. Go to the Alexa Privacy settings page and select Manage Smart Home Devices History.

  2. To delete content, click the Delete Smart Home Devices History button.

Change Alexa's Name

Change Alexa's wake word to avoid accidentally waking her up. This is also a way to avoid accidental Amazon purchases through Amazon Echo.

Google Home does not currently allow you to change the "hot word" from "OK Google" or "Hey Google." 

  1. In the Alexa app, select the Devices icon.

  2. Select your device, and then select Wake Word.

  3. Select a wake word from the list, and then select OK.

  4. Save your changes. 

Mute Amazon Echo or Google Home's Microphone

Both the Amazon Echo and Google Home assistants have a microphone button that you can toggle on and off to gain a little more privacy.

Instruct Google Home to stop listening with this voice command: "OK Google, turn off the microphone." Google Home should confirm the microphone is off, and the lights should turn off. Once you command Google Home to turn off the mic, it will not obey a verbal command to turn it back on (which is as it should be.) Turn Google Home back on using the button on the device itself. 

With Alexa, you have to use the physical button to turn it off. Like Google Home, you should see lights indicating when your Amazon Echo is "awake" and listening.

Can muted microphones still hear you? While it's unlikely, unplug the power cord if you're still worried.

Smart TVs and Game Consoles

Smart TVs and game consoles accept and respond to voice commands, as well.

The Xbox, in particular, is a sophisticated device that has cameras for gesture control and face recognition in addition to microphones. If you're concerned about its spying potential, turn your Xbox off when not in use. If you're still concerned, put the unit on a power strip and, after powering down your Xbox using the power button, turn off the power on the power strip. 

Some smart TVs or TV devices (such as the Amazon Fire TV) have microphones either on the TV or remote that allow you to use voice commands. But the more common spying issue associated with smart TVs is your metadata. Internet-connected TVs can track your viewing habits and use them to sell advertising.

If you don't want your TV to be quite so smart, WIRED has a set of instructions on how to turn off those features on most brands of smart TVs. 

In 2014, Vizio used its smart televisions to collect and sell data on millions of its customers without their knowledge or consent. Vizio settled the complaint for $2.2 million.

Controlling Your Computer's Microphone and Camera

Your computer, by far, has the most potential to spy on you. And that's beyond the usual data mining from Facebook, Microsoft, or Google.

Because your computer is meant to be modified with new software, it's more sophisticated than virtual assistants and voice-activated appliances. That new software is supposed to offer fixes and improvements, but, unfortunately, you could also be infected with spyware and malware. This kind of software can track your keystrokes or secretly spy on you through the webcam. It's possible for malicious software to activate the webcam or mic without activating the indicator light. 

Keep your virus protection up to date, and consider the low-tech, yet effective, solution of covering your webcam with a sticky note when you're not using it and unplugging any USB webcams when they're not in use. Cover your computer's built-in mic with tape and use a USB microphone or headset when needed.

Learn how to keep your Mac's camera from spying on you.